War is contagious. Instability generates more instability when war destabilizes a regional power. This is exactly what appears to be happening now in southern Russia. From Armenia to Tajikistan, conflict and discord is escalating to dangerous levels as Russia appears to be at the weakest point in its war.
With Russia’s over-expansion in Ukraine, countries in Russia’s sphere of influence are expected to become less stable as those who were under Vladimir Putin’s thumbs see an opportunity for revenge.
The display of Russian power has been a source of interference and stability in these areas. While he fueled separatist movements in countries he felt were too independent, Putin has largely been able to contain major conflicts across borders.
A decline in Russian influence is just as likely to lead to chaos as it is to a positive transition period. Force abhors emptiness. The most immediate threat comes from two conflicts that escalated just this month.
Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were frequent border disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This conflict was usually centered in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but claimed by Armenia. The conflict increased in 2020, but Russia brokered a settlement and sent troops to maintain the peace.
Earlier this month, simmering tensions erupted into a fierce war. While both sides blame each other, the first cross-border attack appears to have come from Azerbaijan, spreading the conflict beyond the disputed territories into Armenia. Hundreds were killed.
Armenia is reportedly under Russia’s protection as a military ally under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led defense alliance with six other former Soviet states. The failure of any CSTO country, including Russia, to assist Armenia indicates that the alliance is still dead.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Azerbaijan attacked Armenia shortly after Ukraine expelled Russia from most of the Kharkiv region.
Tajikistan has also attacked Kyrgyzstan in recent days, although both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Elsewhere in Russia’s near abroad, anti-Russian elements see an opportunity to crush the Russian-backed separatist movements whose dependence on Russian forces makes them vulnerable today.
Transnistria is a semi-autonomous region that broke away from Moldova in the 1990s with the support of Moscow and relies on Russia for security. It also borders Ukraine. As Russia seeks to move many of its dispersed forces into the neighboring conflict, Moldova has its best chance in decades to reclaim the region. Moscow is aware of this and has explicitly warned Moldova against moving against Russian forces in the region.
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Similar concerns have been raised by South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway region in Georgia that also depends on Russia for military and financial assistance.
Georgian public opinion has strongly supported the move toward the European Union and NATO since the brief Russian invasion in 2008. But the ruling Georgian Dream party is close to Putin and has actively sought to crush dissent, roll back years of democratic progress, and thwart relations with the West. . This shift was possible, despite the lack of popular support, thanks to growing corruption and judicial manipulation, all of which followed Putin’s handbook.
For years, Russia’s foreign policy toward “neighboring countries” consisted of political and military intervention aimed at consolidating dependency, thwarting democratic movements, and keeping friendly proxies in power in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, it was the failure of these efforts in Ukraine that prompted Putin to invade it in 2014 and earlier this year.
Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s 3,000-mile zone of influence is filled with potential hotspots. Russia’s war in Ukraine and its apparent weakness there increase the potential for these domestic disputes to erupt.
The West may be tempted to celebrate Russia’s waning influence in the Caucasus and Eurasia. Young pro-democracy movements can find oxygen to flourish, and the West can discover opportunities for greater partnership and influence.
But this path is not inevitable. If Russia’s fighting in Ukraine portends its broader retreat, an easy peace is unlikely for many in Russia’s neighbourhood.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow in US foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Source : localtoday.news